The Ideal of Love

The Ideal of Love

by David A. Beardsley

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That Love is all there is,

Is all we know of Love;

It is enough, the freight should be

Proportioned to the groove.

                  –Emily Dickinson

    The Ideal of Love is very closely tied to the Ideal of Beauty, as I explored in my essay of the same name, and the quote from John Vyvyan in his Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty with which I opened that book bears repeating: Considered philosophically, love and beauty were invented by Plato.  The relationship between them was most famously pointed out by Plato, speaking through Socrates, who in turn was speaking through Diotima, in the Symposium, and it has been a cornerstone of the Ideal tradition ever since.  As most Idealists agree, Beauty is the end, Love the means; both are essential in the life of the philosopher.  Love in its broadest sense is a desire for union, oneness.  This can of course run the entire gamut from sexual union to union with the One.

    This hierarchy is reflected in language. While English generally has just the one word “love,” it is derived from the same root as the German “lieb,” which is also present in “libido.”  So the lusty aspect is always there.  The Greeks, having more words, could be more specific (or confusing, as the case may be).  Some of the confusion can be seen in the use of the word ἔρως (érōs).  Eros is of course a god of sexual desire, but as used in, say, the Symposium, the word is not necessarily just sexual–it can refer to any type of human love that is other than friendship or familial, and not necessarily of another person.  There is a sense of the personal or egocentric about it, which can lead to “passions” of jealousy and manipulation. However there can also be an aspirational element to it which can inspire someone to begin the “ladder of ascent” from physical to Absolute Beauty.  Eros is also Plato’s preferred word for love in works such as Phaedrus, his other main work on the subject.  (We’ll be looking at the elaborate “definition” of Eros given by Socrates in The Symposium later on.)

    The other most-used word is φιλία (philía), which implies a more dispassionate–not necessarily less intense–love, but say of ideas or principles.  It is of course the root of the word philosophy (love of wisdom) and shows up in others such as philanthropy, which gives an indication of its impersonal nature: the love of all mankind (anthropos) as distinguished from any one individual.

The term ἀγάπη (agápē) originally denoted a human love, although one that lacked the “erotic” element–love of family, say.  But due to its frequent use in the New Testament, it has taken on a more religious connotation, in the analogy of God as the Father and humans as his children.  We love each other as brothers and sisters due to God’s fatherly love.

(There are also different words used in Latin texts, and although there can be a fair amount of overlap in the use of the different words, the context helps to establish their meaning.  Although I’m neither a Greek or Latin scholar, I will try to indicate which of the words was originally used.)

Having acknowledged the debt to Plato, it is necessary to point out that there are precedents for the centrality of Beauty and Love in Western thought.  Love as Eros, “fairest among the deathless gods,” is first seen in Hesiod’s Theogony, as coming into being in the second wave of gods, right after χάος, “Chaos.”  (This is not chaos in the sense it is used today, “disordered,” but has the meaning of a “vast void,” which is not really empty but rather is, as the I Ching tells us, “where brilliant dreams are born.”)  It is Eros who oversees the marriage of other newborn gods.  As Werner Jaeger says, “At the very beginning of his account of the world’s origin, the poet (Hesiod) introduces Eros as one of the oldest and mightiest of gods, coeval with Earth and Heaven, the first couple, who are joined in loving union by his power.”  (p. 15)  So as we see in many other myths, the physical as well as heavenly universes are conceived and brought into being through Love.

The unity of the Love and Beauty is described in Hesiod  a couple of generations later, deified as Aphrodite, born from the castration of Ouranos by his son Kronos.  (By now, obviously, violence and strife have been added to the world.)  Aphrodite was from the first associated with erotic love, and her beauty was such that it aroused sexual desire in both gods and men.  When she enters into the pantheon on Olympus, “…with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honor she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods,— the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.”

    In the world-view offered by Empedocles (c. 495-c. 435 BC), however, there is in fact a continuum between Love (Φιλότητος, Philotetos) and Strife (Νείκους, Neikous), described as a circle with Love at the center and Strife at the periphery, like centrifugal and centripetal forces, and the movement between the two, constitutes a cycle of creation and destruction.  In Love there is unity and stillness, but when there is movement outwards away from it, the four basic elements (earth, air, fire, water) become “mixed,” and thrown into confusion.  As quoted by Simplicius (c. 490–c. 560), in Early Greek Philosophy Empedocles says:

    As I said before when I revealed the limits of my stories,

    I shall tell a twofold tale.  For now they grew to be one alone

    from many, and now they grew apart again to be many from one–

    fire and water and earth and the boundless height of air,

    and cursed Strife apart from them, balanced in every way,

    and Love among them, equal in length and breadth.

    Her you must regard in thought: do not sit staring with your eyes.

    She is deemed to be innate also in mortal bodies,

    and by her they think friendly thoughts and perform deeds of peace,

    calling her Joy (Καλἐοντες, Kaleontes) by name and Aphrodite,

    whom no one has seen as she whirls among them–

    no mortal man.  (p. 121)

As is described in other schools of thought, Love “you must regard in thought;” she is of the sphere of the Intellect, while the four elements compose the world of the senses.  Man is caught up in this cycle and is, like Empedocles, “an exile from the gods and a wanderer,” much like Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden.  But Love is still “innate” in us, “and by her (we) think friendly thoughts and perform deeds of peace.”  (There is a hint here to the answer to Freud’s famous question: “What do women want?”  They want to love.  Men too.)

Hippolytus (170 – 235), the early Christian saint, in his Refutation of All Heresies says:

Thus souls are hated and tortured and punished in this world, according to Empedocles, and then gathered together by Love, who is good and who takes pity on their lamentation and on the disorderly and vile arrangements of mad Strife; she is eager to lead them gradually from the world and to make them appropriate to the One, labouring to ensure that everything, led by her, comes to unity.  (p. 115)

And as Werner Jaeger describes it:

The old Hesiodic speculation about the several ages through which the world has passed is here revived: in the light of the doctrine of perpetual recurrence, Hesiod’s conviction that he lives in the decadent Iron Age now becomes in Empedocles the belief that his own human existence is wedged in between a Golden Age of the past, when Love prevailed, and a brighter future when that Age shall come again, only to be vanquished by the reign of Hate.  (p. 143)

The implication I see in this is not that we need look to the “future when that Age shall come again,” but once we remember Love as the source of this circle, we can return to her as the One.  At any given moment we can choose between Love and Strife, the One and the ego, the eternal and the transitory.  And when we do remember the One, we can say with Empedocles, I now walk among you, a god free from death, no longer a mortal,  and honoured by all….

Although the other philosophers who lived before Socrates are not as explicit in their acknowledgement of Love, we can hear echoes of it in the apeiron (“Unlimited”) of Anaximander, the “Oneness” of Melissus of Samos, the “Unity” of Xenophanes, and the “Being” of Parmenides.  But as we have said, it is the formulation of Socrates, primarily in the Symposium, which has most influenced the Western view of Love, and it is to that which we now turn our attention.

The Symposium

As I’ve mentioned, for Socrates Love and Beauty are inextricably bound.  I won’t try to recap the Symposium here, as I did previously, but will jump ahead to Socrates’ own account of the birth of Love (Eros).  He first extracts from his host Agathon, who has just given a fine speech conflating Love and Beauty, an admission that they cannot really be the same, since Love is always of something that it does not have already; otherwise there would be no need of it.

Socrates: “So can you still allow Love to be beautiful, if this is the case?”

Whereupon Agathon said, “I greatly fear, Socrates, I knew nothing of what I was talking about.”

Socrates goes on to his own account of Love (Eros), but lest he himself seem too wise, he does so through the person of  “a Mantinean woman named Diotima: in this subject she was skilled, and in many others too…”  Diotima first extracts from Socrates an admission that Love cannot truly be a god, for the reason that he is lacking in happiness and beauty.  But that does not make him a mortal, rather,

‘As I previously suggested, between a mortal and an immortal.’

“‘And what is that, Diotima?’

“‘A great spirit, Socrates: for the whole of the spiritual is between divine and mortal.’

“‘Possessing what power?’ I asked.

“‘Interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one. Through it are conveyed all divination and priestcraft concerning sacrifice and ritual and incantations, and all soothsaying and sorcery. God with man does not mingle: but the spiritual is the means of all society and converse of men with gods and of gods with men, whether waking or asleep. Whosoever has skill in these affairs is a spiritual man to have it in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical. Many and multifarious are these spirits, and one of them is Love.’  (202e-203a)

When Socrates asks about Love’s birth, Diotima replies:

“‘That is rather a long story,’ she replied; ‘but still, I will tell it you. When Aphrodite was born, the gods made a great feast, and among the company was Resource the son of Cunning. And when they had banqueted there came Poverty abegging, as well she might in an hour of good cheer, and hung about the door. Now Resource, grown tipsy with nectar—for wine as yet there was none—went into the garden of Zeus, and there, overcome with heaviness, slept. Then Poverty, being of herself so resourceless, devised the scheme of having a child by Resource,  and lying down by his side she conceived Love. Hence it is that Love from the beginning has been attendant and minister to Aphrodite, since he was begotten on the day of her birth, and is, moreover, by nature a lover bent on beauty since Aphrodite is beautiful. Now, as the son of Resource and Poverty, Love is in a peculiar case. First, he is ever poor, and far from tender or beautiful as most suppose him: rather is he hard and parched, shoeless and homeless; on the bare ground always he lies with no bedding, and takes his rest on doorsteps and waysides in the open air; true to his mother’s nature, he ever dwells with want. But he takes after his father in scheming for all that is beautiful and good; for he is brave, strenuous and high-strung, a famous hunter, always weaving some stratagem; desirous and competent of wisdom, throughout life ensuing the truth; a master of jugglery, witchcraft,  and artful speech. By birth neither immortal nor mortal, in the selfsame day he is flourishing and alive at the hour when he is abounding in resource; at another he is dying, and then reviving again by force of his father’s nature: yet the resources that he gets will ever be ebbing away; so that Love is at no time either resourceless or wealthy, and furthermore, he stands midway betwixt wisdom and ignorance. The position is this: no gods ensue wisdom or desire to be made wise; such they are already; nor does anyone else that is wise ensue it. Neither do the ignorant ensue wisdom, nor desire to be made wise: in this very point is ignorance distressing, when a person who is not comely or worthy or intelligent is satisfied with himself. The man who does not feel himself defective has no desire for that whereof he feels no defect.’

“‘Who then, Diotima,’ I asked, ‘are the followers of wisdom, if they are neither the wise nor the ignorant?’

“‘Why, a child could tell by this time,’ she answered, ‘that they are the intermediate sort, and amongst these also is Love. For wisdom has to do with the fairest things, and Love is a love directed to what is fair; so that Love must needs be a friend of wisdom, and, as such, must be between wise and ignorant. This again is a result for which he has to thank his origin: for while he comes of a wise and resourceful father, his mother is unwise and resourceless. Such, my good Socrates, is the nature of this spirit. That you should have formed your other notion of Love is no surprising accident. You supposed, if I am to take your own words as evidence, that the beloved and not the lover was Love. This led you, I fancy, to hold that Love is all-beautiful. The lovable, indeed, is the truly beautiful, tender, perfect, and heaven-blest; but the lover is of a different type, in accordance with the account I have given.’

“Upon this I observed: ‘Very well then, madam, you are right; but if Love is such as you describe him, of what use is he to mankind?’

“‘That is the next question, Socrates,’ she replied, ‘on which I will try to enlighten you. While Love is of such nature and origin as I have related, he is also set on beautiful things, as you say. Now, suppose some one were to ask us: In what respect is the Love of beautiful things, Socrates and Diotima? But let me put the question more clearly thus: What is the love of the lover of beautiful things?’

“‘That they may be his,’ I replied.

“‘But your answer craves a further query,’ she said, ‘such as this: What will he have who gets beautiful things?’

“This question I declared I was quite unable now to answer offhand. “‘Well,’ she proceeded, ‘imagine that the object is changed, and the inquiry is made about the good instead of the beautiful. Come, Socrates (I shall say), what is the love of the lover of good things?’

“‘That they may be his,’ I replied.

“‘And what will he have who gets good things?’

“‘I can make more shift to answer this,’ I said; ‘he will be happy.’

“‘Yes,’ she said, ‘the happy are happy by acquisition of good things, and we have no more need to ask for what end a man wishes to be happy, when such is his wish: the answer seems to be ultimate.’

“‘Quite true,’ I said.  (203b-205a)

I’ve carried on with this for some time because it does contain the key arguments that differentiate Socrates’ views: Eros is not a god, but a spiritual medium between humans and gods.  His nature is resourcefulness and abundance on one hand, poverty and continual want on the other.  The Beloved is that which is perfect and godlike; Love itself is lacking in those perfect qualities of Beauty and Wisdom.  Love wishes to acquire these in order to acquire happiness, about which nothing more can be said.

Diotima is clear on the dual nature of Love, which depends on whether Poverty (Penia) or Resourcefulness (Poros) is predominant.  We all know–perhaps we are–people with a bottomless need for love, who consume and drain it from all those around them.  They learn to bargain for it; I’ll give love only if I get it from you.  It is always focused on the ego, which is itself constitutionally incapable of knowing love. The circles of inclusion it creates are just mirrors of itself: my family, my gene pool, my religion, my sect, my nation.  These circles, limited already, can strangle when they constrict further, as in a marriage when the unity is lost and it begins a descent into strife. It may start as play; then it becomes a game; then becomes a contest; becomes a competition; becomes a battle; becomes war; becomes hell.

Poros, however, knows that love is infinite when we have learned to tap into its source.  It is unconditional and universal; does not need to bargain.  Like Socrates, like Christ, it sees the suffering in people who hate and responds with compassion rather than anger.  It does not perpetuate the continued cycles of strife avenged by more strife.  Love does not make the world go round; desire makes the world go round.  Love makes the world fall still.

But there is one more quality Love needs in order to be godlike: immortality.  Those attached to the body achieve this by having children, but there are those ‘who in their souls still more than in their bodies conceive those things which are proper for soul to conceive and bring forth…”  It is they who are the poets, philosophers, law-givers.  “In their name has many a shrine been reared because of their fine children; whereas for the human sort never any man obtained this honor.”

It is through desire for this kind of immortality that man can reach the true form of the beautiful, and the means to get him there is Love.

‘Do but consider,’ she said, ‘that there only will it befall him, as he sees the beautiful through that which makes it visible, to breed not illusions but true examples of virtue, since his contact is not with illusion but with truth. So when he has begotten a true virtue and has reared it up he is destined to win the friendship of Heaven; he, above all men, is immortal.’

“This, Phaedrus and you others, is what Diotima told me, and I am persuaded of it; in which persuasion I pursue my neighbors, to persuade them in turn that towards this acquisition the best helper that our human nature can hope to find is Love. Wherefore I tell you now that every man should honor Love, as I myself do honor all love-matters with especial devotion, and exhort all other men to do the same; both now and always do I glorify Love’s power and valor as far as I am able. So I ask you, Phaedrus, to be so good as to consider this account as a eulogy bestowed on Love, or else to call it by any name that pleases your fancy.”  (212a-212c)

At this point, the proceedings are disrupted by the arrival of Alcibiades, who goes on to make points about his love for Socrates, but I think the main argument has been made: that there is an Ideal of Beauty, which can be seen by man at which point “he, above all men, is immortal.”  It is this state, I believe, that Empedocles and others found, and which is always available to those who learn to love.

Hermes Trismegistus

In the texts of the Hermetic tradition, thought to have been written in the 1st through the 3d centuries in Alexandria, we also find love as a first principle in the creation of the world as an emanation of the One.  In Book 1, in which Poimandres (or Nous, “Mind”) instructs Hermes Trismegistus about the birth of Man and the world, he shows how Nous the Creator had made Man in his own image out of love (eratos):

12. ‘Nous,  the Father of all, who is life and light, brought forth Man, the same as himself, whom he loved as his own child, for Man was very beautiful, bearing the image of his Father.  It was really his own form that God loved, and he handed over to him all his creation.

13.  ‘When Man had observed in the Father the creation of the Creator, he himself wished to create; and he was given permission to do so by the Father, being begotten in the sphere of the Creator, he observed carefully the creations of his brother from which he obtained every power.  The Father and the brother loved him, and each gave him of the own authority.  Having acquired knowledge of their essence and partaking in nature, he wished to break through the circumference of the spheres and to come to know the power of him who was set in authority over the fire.  

14. ‘Having all power over the world of mortals and living creatures without speech, he looked down through the harmony of the cosmos and, having broken through the sovereignty of the Divine Power, he showed to downward moving Nature the beautiful form of God.

‘When she had seen the beauty which never satiates of him who had in himself all the energy of the powers and the form of God, she smiled with love, because she had seen the image of the most beautiful form of Man in the water and his shadow upon the earth.  He, seeing himself a similar form to his own in the water, fell in love with her and wished to dwell there.  No sooner wished than done, and he inhabited a form without speech.  Nature, having taken her beloved, enfolded him completely and they united, for they loved each other.  

    The account continues with the world taking on more and more multiplicity, and Man  who had been single, also as described by Aristophanes, “became in turn male and female.”  And it continues downhill into more separation and darkness: we confuse love with desire, unity with sex, we forget the light, we forget our immortality and bliss.

The parallels with the story of Narcissus are obvious, and I think the intended meaning is the same: we are as gods by nature, but are susceptible to falling in love with our own reflection in the physical world.  This Fall happens in Love, but it is still a fall, into the limited, the partial, with the eyes outward on Nature, rather than inward to our source.  We start to acquire more and more distinctions, define ourselves more and more narrowly, and each new adjective we embrace becomes another opportunity for Strife.  I am a white male Republican senior citizen.  I am a black female from the South.  I am gay, straight.  Shia, Sunni.  Powerful, powerless.  Protestant, Catholic.  Beautiful, homely.  Jewish, Palestinian.  I am entitled to all my adjectives, but no one else is, and all that needs to be done is to get rid of all these other people.

The fact is you are none of these names, and the more you love them, the harder it will be to let them go when the time comes.  They are all just descriptions of your body, your feelings, your opinions–they are subject to change, and are not who you are.  No matter how hot or horrible you think you are, you’ll feel rather silly trying to smuggle them in when the time comes for you to stand before those beings who know only Love.  You know that dream you always had ( and maybe still do) about the test that’s coming up and you forgot to prepare for it?  This is it.


In the third century, Plotinus (204/5-270) continued the Platonic teaching of viewing Eros as an intermediary between humans and gods, and Aphrodite as having a divine and earthly nature.  He hews closely to the descriptions given by Plato in the Symposium,  but makes it clear that he sees these as forces within the individual, not far-off gods that need worshiping or placating.  He sees us as wandering the same Strife-filled land as Empedocles, but shows that it is in our power to use Love as a guide to bring us back to the One.  As long as we continue to choose one of the many forms of Strife, as long as it is more important to us to maintain our separateness, we will not reach the One–will not even know It exists.

Plotinus wrote a full essay on Love (Ennead V, 3, 5), which shows his complete knowledge of the Symposium,  but it is rather dry and analytical.  (I think it may not be an accident that it was not translated by his other main translators, E. O’Brien and A.H. Armstrong.)  It has little of the poetic quality one might expect from the subject, although Plotinus rarely tries to fulfill our expectations.  His concern is always with the Good, and is always careful to distinguish it as an end from Love as the means to reach it.  As Pierre Hadot says:

As a gift of the Good, Plotinian love is immediately love of the Good.  It is the invasion of the soul by a presence which leaves no room for anything but itself.  But though the soul moves and is transported, this movement is not as an ascent towards an end point where love ends.  Plotinian love always has enough movement to go farther still; in its infinite quest it would go beyond the Good if it were able to.  Its terminus is the Good, not because this is a final point, but because it is  the Absolute.  Right from the start, the beloved was the Good, and in the experience of union, it will continue to be so.  (p. 55)

So it is really when Plotinus is considering his main subject of the Good, the One, that his treatment of Love also becomes “transported:”

Every soul is an Aphrodite, as is suggested in the myth of Aphrodite’s birth at the same time as that of Eros.  As long as soul stays true to itself, it loves the divinity and desires to be one with it, as a daughter loves with a noble love a noble father.  When, however, the soul has come down here to human birth, it exchanges (as if deceived by the false promises of an adulterous lover) its divine love for one that is mortal.  And then, far from its begetter, the soul yields to all manner of excess.

But, when the soul begins to hate its shame and puts away evil and makes its return, it finds peace.

How great, then, is its bliss can be conceived by those who have not tasted it if they but think of earthly unions in love, marking well the joy felt by the lover who succeeds in obtaining his desires.  But this love is directed to the mortal and harmful–to shadows–and soon disappears because such is not the authentic object of our love nor the good we really seek.  Only in the world beyond does the real object of our love exist, the only one with which we can unite ourselves, of which we can have a part and which we can intimately possess without being separated by the barriers of flesh.

Anyone who has had this experience will know what I am talking about.  He will know that the soul lives another life as it advances towards the One, reaches it and shares in it.  Thus restored, the soul recognizes the presence of the dispenser of the true life.  It needs nothing more.  On the contrary, it must renounce everything else and rest in it alone, become it alone, all earthiness gone, eager to be free, impatient of every fetter that binds below in order so to embrace the real object of its love with its entire being that no part of it does not touch the One. (VI, 9, 9)  (Translated by Elmer O’Brien, p. 85-86)

Once the One has been realized, even love is superfluous.

Love in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

A slight historical digression.  The two centuries after the death of Plotinus in 270 saw two forces which would change the ancient world forever: the gradual decline and dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity.  The date of the collapse of the Western empire is usually given as 476 (and the end of The History of Rome as May 6, 2012). Some fifty years later, saw the execution of Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy) in 524, who had planned a complete Latin translation of Plato.  In 529 the Eastern Emperor Justinian closed the “pagan” schools, including the Platonic Academy, to give full legitimacy to Christianity.  Between these two events the Platonic strain was pretty well lost in the West for about a millenium.

While it doesn’t technically fit into the Idealist tradition, the teaching of Jesus Christ of course contains some of the most simple yet profound observations on Love in the wisdom literature; as seen in Matthew 22:37-40), “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” that is, to become united through Love.  And “Love your neighbor as yourself,”  which could also be phrased as to see your neighbor as not other than yourself.  “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus answers in Luke 10 with the story of The Good Samaritan: everyone, especially those in most need.  And not only that, we are to “love our enemies.”  There is no escape.

This is not the the place to delve into the distinctions between philosophy and religion, and specifically Idealism and Christianity.  However Pierre Hadot in What is Ancient Philosophy? makes the case that the teachings of Jesus can be seen as a philosophical school and his followers adopted practices of the kind used by Pythagoreans, Stoics, and others (for which see The Ideal of School).  It was perhaps the introduction of worship that made it a religion; rituals of worship of course carrying the implicit message that humans are lesser beings who need to placate an all-powerful god, an authoritarian and fear-based system like that of Hesiodic gods.  But fear is inimical to Love, and cannot be the intent of what Jesus taught.

Some traces of the Ideal remained, however, primarily in the form of the first parts of Plato’s Timaeus, which had been translated into Latin with commentary in the early 4th century by Calcidius.  The early scholars in the Church wished to reconcile this knowledge with Christian doctrine, but overall it was a rather rocky relationship.  Plato and Plotinus had been embraced by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) but he ultimately opted for Christianity.  Love as we’ve seen is at the heart of Christ’s teachings, and to others who followed, there was no conflict between the two.

An example is (Meister) Johannes Eckhart (1260-c. 1328).  Speaking of the “roots of thought” that fed the Middle Ages, Raymond B. Blakney says in the introduction to his translation of Eckhart:  First and foremost was Plato and the Neoplatonist tradition, in the line of which Eckhart surely belongs.  But the Church was growing increasingly rigid and wary of “heresies,” and Eckhart was brought before the Archbishop’s court in Cologne, a precursor to the Inquisition, to defend himself.  In his Defense, as in the Apology of Socrates, he is forced to explain his teachings, which draw freely on the philosophical tradition as well as the New Testament.  Apparently Eckhart died before his case was resolved, but Pope John Paul XXII intended to rebuke him for “sowing thorns and thistles amongst the faithful and even the simple folk.”

This growing suspicion of influences other than church dogma is echoed in the case of Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), whose Oration on the Dignity of Man also raised the hackles of the Church fathers through its too-liberal use of philosophers as sources.  He was also censured by the Church, and ultimately placed under virtual house arrest.  It was a lesson not lost on his teacher, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who was more circumspect in his teachings, even though he was a devoted Platonist as well as a churchman.  So even as universal an idea as Love was at this time becoming an article of narrow dogma, and being used as a weapon to punish.

Nonetheless, Love, divine and earthly, is of course one of the major themes of the Renaissance, in literature as well as art.  Ficino and members of his Platonic Academy reenacted the event recorded in the Symposium in 1474, which he recorded in his book De Amore.  It’s unclear whether the speeches were all composed by those in attendance and just recorded by Ficino, or whether they were all composed by Ficino himself.  I tend to believe the former, since although it is a valuable insight into the influence of Plato on the Renaissance, for me it has little of the wit and poetry of the Symposium itself.  But it does close with a speech attributed to Christoforo Marsuppini which encapsulates our ability to reunite with the Ideal through Love:

And anyone who surrenders himself to God with love in this life will certainly return to his own Idea, the Idea by which he was created.  There any defect in him will be corrected again; he will be united with his Idea forever.  For the true man and the Idea of a man are the same.  For this reason as long as we are in this life, separated from God, none of us is a true man, for we are separated from our own Idea or Form.  To it, divine love and piety will lead us.  Even though we may be dismembered and mutilated here, then, joined by love to our own Idea, we shall become whole men, so that we shall seem to have first worshipped God in things, in order later to worship things in God, and to worship things in God for this reason, in order to recover ourselves in Him above all, and in loving God we shall seem to have loved ourselves.  (p. 145)

    As we know, the influence of Ficino’s Academy, and hence Plato’s thought on Love and Beauty, was wide-ranging.  We can hear it in the following sonnet by Michelangelo, (1475- 1564), despite the rather tortured syntax used to make it scan and rhyme.

La vita del mie amor.

This heart of flesh feeds not with life my love:
   The love wherewith I love thee hath no heart;
   Nor harbours it in any mortal part,
   Where erring thought or ill desire may move.
When first Love sent our souls from God above,
   He fashioned me to see thee as thou art–
   Pure light; and thus I find God’s counterpart
   In thy fair face, and feel the sting thereof.
As heat from fire, from loveliness divine
   The mind that worships what recalls the sun
   From whence she sprang, can be divided never:
And since thine eyes all Paradise enshrine,
   Burning unto those orbs of light I run,
   There where I loved thee first to dwell for ever.

    And as well in this prayer to Love delivered by Pietro Bembo in The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529):

O most sacred Love, what tongue is there that can praise you worthily?  Full of beauty, goodness, and divine wisdom, you flow from the union of beauty, goodness and divine wisdom, there you dwell, and through it you return to it perpetually.  Graciously binding the universe together, midway between celestial and earthy things, by your benign disposition you direct heavenly powers in their government of the lower, and turning the minds of men to their source, you unite them with it.  You unite the elements in harmony, inspire Nature to produce, and move all that is born to the perpetuation of life.  You join together the things that are separate, give perfection to the imperfect, likeness to the unlike, friendship to the hostile, fruit to the earth, tranquillity to the sea, its life-giving light to the sky.  You are the father of true pleasures, of all blessings, of peace, of gentleness and of good will; the enemy of rough savagery and vileness; the beginning and end of every good.  (p. 341-2)

(When he has finished his inspired speech, signora Emilia Pia, companion to the Duchess of Urbino who is the hostess of the gathering, says to him, “Take care, Pietro, that with these thoughts of yours you too do not cause your soul to leave your body.”  To which he replies, “Madam, that would not be the first miracle that love has worked in me.”)

Another historical aside: the rise of the printing press in the 15th century helped the spread of the newly rediscovered Ideas, and took them out of the realm of the churchmen to the educated public.  The translation of works into English of course sped the process in that country: the first book published in England was The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers printed in 1477 by William Caxton, and was a translation of a French compendium of sayings that included Anaxagoras and Socrates, among many others.  The Book of the Courtier was translated and published by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, and became one of the most important works in the English Renaissance, for its depiction of the qualities of the “nobility,” as well as being a source of Platonic ideas.  Its influence, and the consequent influence of Ficino and Plato, can be seen in Spenser and Shakespeare, and is well documented in works by John Vyvyan, Martin Ling, Jill Line and others.  It would not be until some 250 years later though that the works of Plato himself would be translated into English by Thomas Taylor (1758–1835).

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Which brings us to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who was an avid reader of Taylor’s translations, and back to Love.  Although Love is a continuous presence in everything Emerson wrote–love of nature, love of humanity, love of the Good–he did not write that much on it specifically.  His essay Love, in the first collection, concerns itself largely with the romantic love of youth, although he makes his knowledge of Plato explicit, citing

… that high philosophy of Beauty which the ancient writers delighted in; for they said that the soul of man, embodied here on earth, went roaming up and down in quest of that other world of its own, out of which it came into this, but was soon stupefied by the light of the natural sun, and unable to see any other objects than those of this world, which are but shadows of real things.

 And he goes on to describe the expansion of the soul, the climbing of the ladder of Love from the individual to the universal, giving up the need to possess and control, wishing only reunite the beauty of the soul with that of the Over-Soul.

But this dream of love, though beautiful, is only one scene in our play. In the procession of the soul from within outward, it enlarges its circles ever, like the pebble thrown into the pond, or the light proceeding from an orb. The rays of the soul alight first on things nearest, on every utensil and toy, on nurses and domestics, on the house, and yard, and passengers, on the circle of household acquaintance, on politics, and geography, and history. But things are ever grouping themselves according to higher or more interior laws. Neighbourhood, size, numbers, habits, persons, lose by degrees their power over us. Cause and effect, real affinities, the longing for harmony between the soul and the circumstance, the progressive, idealizing instinct, predominate later, and the step backward from the higher to the lower relations is impossible. Thus even love, which is the deification of persons, must become more impersonal every day.  …

 He closes with a reminder to us that those things which we must learn to give up, those “utensils and toys” that the ego would have us believe will be such a sacrifice, will be replaced by our ability to see the One in all faces, in all things.  Then we will love not because we want to, but because we must.

Thus are we put in training for a love which knows not sex, nor person, nor partiality, but which seeks virtue and wisdom everywhere, to the end of increasing virtue and wisdom. We are by nature observers, and thereby learners. That is our permanent state. But we are often made to feel that our affections are but tents of a night. Though slowly and with pain, the objects of the affections change, as the objects of thought do. There are moments when the affections rule and absorb the man, and make his happiness dependent on a person or persons. But in health the mind is presently seen again, — its overarching vault, bright with galaxies of immutable lights, and the warm loves and fears that swept over us as clouds, must lose their finite character and blend with God, to attain their own perfection. But we need not fear that we can lose any thing by the progress of the soul. The soul may be trusted to the end. That which is so beautiful and attractive as these relations must be succeeded and supplanted only by what is more beautiful, and so on for ever.